Tea is often considered to be a quintessentially English drink. After all, we have been drinking it for over 350 years. But in fact the history of tea goes much further back.
The history of tea begins in China. According to one famous legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting by a tree while his servant boiled some drinking water, when leaves from the tree fell in the water. Shen Nung, who was a renowned herbalist, drank the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the drink was tea.
The truth of this story will never be known, but it is clear that tea drinking became popular in China long before we knew of it in the west. Archaeologists have found tea containers in tombs dating from the Han dynasty but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) that tea became the national drink of China. In fact, it was such a favourite that in the late eighth century a writer called Lu Yu wrote the first book entirely about tea, the Ch’a Ching, or Tea Classic.
Tea soon spread to Japan, where it became a key part of Japanese culture, where the Tea Ceremony celebrated the drink, a form of ritual that may have its origins in the Ch’a Ching.
The drink didn’t reach Europe in a significant way until the second half of the 1500s, via the Portuguese who were living in the East as traders and missionaries. But it was the Dutch who were the first to bring tea back as a commercial import. Tea soon became fashionable in the Netherlands and gradually around Europe, though at that time it was a drink of the wealthy.
England was relatively slow to take to tea, and the first reference to tea appeared in a London newspaper in 1658, just six years after the establishment of the first coffee house in London. But when Charles II married the tea-loving Catherine of Braganza, tea became fashionable and a habit that spread quickly through the upper classes. The East India Company soon began to import tea from China, and the English love affair with the drink began.
Initially, tea was popular in coffee houses, among the middle and upper-class gentlemen who did their business there, while women drank tea at home. The price of tea remained high initially, due to high levels of taxation. In fact, the first tax on tea was so high, it drastically reduced sales.
Inevitably, the high taxation of tea led to an increase in smuggling. Tea was in great demand by the 1700s but many English people couldn’t afford the high prices, which provided an opportunity for criminal gangs. By the late eighteenth century there was an elaborate organised crime network, which may have imported as much as 7 million lbs of tea every year.
Even worse than the smuggling was the adulteration of tea, which involved the adding of anything from non-tea leaves to sheep dung to the basic product. Eventually, in 1784, the government realised that the heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was worth so the tax was cut drastically and smuggling ended almost over night.
Another boost to tea drinking came with the end of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China, which took place in 1834. This meant that they had to look for other locations to grow tea and so turned to India, which was already the centre of their operations. Beginning with Assam, several places in India were given over to the growing of tea and this was boosted when in 1858 the British government took over direct control of India and helped to promote the tea industry and cultivation. By 1888, tea imports to England from India exceeded the level of China imports.
The end of the East India Company monopoly also had an unexpected consequence for naval design. With tea import now open to anyone, there was a race to come up with ships that could travel the distance from China to England as fast as possible, hence the creation of the new Tea Clipper style of vessel, which were designed with sleek lines, huge masts and enormous sales. This era saw the famous clipper races, between British and American ships, which reached a peak in the 1860s.
to bring home the tea and make the most money, using fast new clippers which had sleek lines, tall masts and huge sails. In particular there was competition between British and American merchants, leading to the famous clipper races of the 1860s. This era came to an end when the Suez canal was opened, as this massively reduced the length of the journey and made it possible for steamers to get to China and back with their load of cargo.
Throughout this period, consumption of tea in England was continuing to rise, from an annual rate of 2lbs per head in 1851 to more than 6lbs per head by 1901, thanks largely to cheaper tea imports from India and Sri Lanka. Tea had become a part of the English way of life, a fact that was effectively recognised by the government during the First World War, when they took over the importation of tea to England to ensure that this essential morale-boosting beverage would still be available at an affordable price for ordinary English people.
The government did the same thing during the Second World War, and tea was rationed from 1940 until 1952. That year also saw the re-establishment of the London Tea Auction, a regular auction that had been taking place since 1706. The auction was still at that time, the centre of the world’s tea industry, but better worldwide communications and the growth of auctions in tea producing nations saw it decline in importance in the second half of the twentieth century.
These days the shelves of our supermarkets are packed with a huge variety of English breakfast teas, but quantity can sometimes overwhelm quality. Many of the mass produced tea products found in shops are rather bitter blends that make a bland and boring cuppa. The good news is that there are many tea makers around producing amazing breakfast teas with high quality, artisan flavour.
The art of the English breakfast tea involves understanding that the addition of milk and sugar should be used to draw out the subtle flavour of the tea, not to cover up a tannic or bitter taste. To help you to explore the world of English tea, here are some of the best blends available in 2021:
Twinings has long been one of the world’s most recognizable tea brands. Famous for producing and creating some of the best English teas including Earl Grey, this company provides a lovely breakfast tea blend that ticks all the right boxes. Their English breakfast tea features a distinctive blend of Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Kenyan black teas to produce a tea with a full body that is bursting with brisk and memorable flavour
Harney & Sons
This company is another one of the major names in English tea, and their exquisite black tea blend is the perfect start to the day. Their Harney & Sons English Breakfast Tea is made from Keemun black tea leaves, and it produces a richer, smokier flavour than the other black tea brands on this list.
Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Gold
Taylors of Harrogate is a well known English tea maker that produces a breakfast tea blend which delivers a bright cup of golden tea that is packed with malty flavours and a rich body. The tea is made from high-quality black tea leaves imported from Kenya, Rwanda, and India.
Cup & Leaf
The Cup & Leaf take on the English breakfast tea is smooth, full of flavour, and the ideal way to start off the day. Their breakfast blend features Sri Lankan tea leaves that produce citrusy and nutty flavours which are increasingly rare in breakfast blends. This tea can be mixed with a splash of milk, sugar, lemon, and mint to help draw out the natural flavour profile of the blend.
A name that tis well known as a prolific producer of tea, Tetley’s breakfast tea blend features a mix of African and Indian black tea leaves resulting in a beverage that is loaded up with rich, complex flavours. The Indian Assam tea used in their blend adds a malty flavour that is enhanced by the full-bodied taste of African black tea leaves.
Tazo is one of the newer English tea companies that focuses on healthy blends that offer bright, bold flavours. Tazo English Breakfast Tea is produced with hand-picked tea leaves that are sourced for their high-quality flavour and aroma. The result is an energizing blend that is packed with bold and brisk flavours. Although the steeping time for this tea is a little longer than with most black teas at five minutes, there is no bitterness to the blend and the wait is definitely worth it!
Stash is a tea company that is well known for its wide range of Fair Trade certified organic teas. Stash English Breakfast Tea can be bought both loose or in bags, and it features the characteristic malty flavour of blended black tea leaves for a final cup that is a delightful bright golden colour.